What We Learned: Colts at Falcons

The Colts got their first preseason win Saturday night, outpointing the Atlanta Falcons, 16-9, at the Georgia Dome. ColtPower points out five things we learned about the team as it prepares to open Lucas Oil Stadium next week.

1. The run defense needs some work:

Yes, we've heard this one before, many times. With six front seven starters — everyone but Dwight Freeney — in place at the beginning of the game, the Colts were gashed by runs of more than 50 yards twice by Atlanta's Michael Turner in the first nine minutes of the game.

Michael Turner had two long runs in the first quarter against the Colts Saturday
AP Photo/John Bazemore

Defending the run requires disciplined hustle. You'll often hear coaches talk about "assignment football" at the lower levels of the game when talking about defending the option, but really, "assignment football" applies to run defense in general. For players on the defensive line, this means playing two gaps and getting unblocked. For linebackers, this means avoiding blocks, reading and reacting to your "keys" — the specific signs from offensive linemen and backs that tell you where the ball is going — and taking a good angle to the ballcarrier. For both groups, overpursuit of the flow of the play can be a costly mistake.

This was the case on Turner's first long run. The Falcons faked an end-around to the right side before handing off to Turner going left. The fast Indianapolis defense was quick to flood that side of the field, but when Turner got the ball in his hands, a quick cut to the right gave him plenty of running room.

Raheem Brock bit on the end-around fake, and Matt Giordano, who moved up to linebacker depth when the receiver on his side went in motion, overpursued and missed the tackle on Turner's cutback.

On the second long run, the middle of Atlanta's line deserves some credit for pushing the defensive tackles to the outside gaps and freeing the inside, and the fullback engaged middle linebacker Gary Brackett to spring Turner, who then cut to the right after he crossed the line of scrimmage.

Outside linebacker Clint Session should have been in position to make the stop, but he misread the play, choosing to advance and attack the outside of the tight end. When Turner made his move, Session should have been waiting for him. Instead, he had run himself out of the play, and what should have been a five- or six-yard run turned into a 63-yard gain.

2. But things may not be as bad as they seem:

If you take away Turner's two long runs — both of which can be easily corrected by the Colts and their coaching staff — the Falcons managed only 51 yards rushing on 22 attempts — a paltry 2.3 yards per attempt.

The run defense stiffened whenever the Falcons threatened, and Session atoned for his mistake on the same drive. Two plays after Turner's 63-yarder, he knifed in on third down to drop Jerious Norwood for a loss that killed the drive and forced Atlanta to settle for a field goal.

The two plays provide a good illustration for what it takes to be a good linebacker — a combination of technical knowledge to see the play develop and be in the right position, and an instinct to be one step ahead of that development and blow the play up. Session displayed both on the third-down play. On the long run, he followed his instincts, but found himself out of position by ignoring the keys that would have left him in position to make the play.

Session can be forgiven for his mistake, considering it was his first preseason action after nagging injuries kept him out for the first two games and much of camp. Turner's run was just the seventh play Session has seen this preseason. If that's the worst mistake he makes, he'll be a strong link for the Colts' defense this fall.

3. On the other hand, the secondary looks terrific:

For a team that for years struggled to find reliable defensive backs, the transformation of this unit over the last couple of years has been stunning.

Dante Hughes breaks up a pass intended for Laurent Robinson
AP Photo/John Bazemore

Kelvin Hayden's interception return for a touchdown Saturday was the turning point of the game, and Brannon Condren showed good instincts in adding a pair of second-half interceptions, one deep in the Colts own territory at the beginning of the fourth quarter.

The Colts allowed just 159 passing yards on 28 attempts, an average of 5.7 yards per attempt, and virtually eliminated yards after the catch for the Falcons. Atlanta's four quarterbacks had a combined quarterback rating of 30.8.

The Colts were the second-best team in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game and per play, and also second in interception rate, last season. As the preseason goes on, it looks like this unit is rounding into similar shape for 2008.

Losing Michael Coe to a season-ending knee injury appears to hurt the unit's depth, but the other young talent — Condren, Keiwan Ratliff, Dante Hughes, T.J. Rushing, Tim Jennings and even rookie Jamie Silva — should be more than able to pick up the slack. And, the return of Bob Sanders to a starting safety position will boost the entire defense, not just the passing game.

4. The young offensive linemen will be all right:

With the number of draft picks the Colts have invested in offensive linemen the last two seasons, the future success of this team really relies on players like Tony Ugoh, Jamey Richard, Mike Pollak and Steve Justice.

Reports have been mixed on some of these players in the early going in 2008, in part because it's difficult for non-coaches to evaluate linemen. Laypersons don't know the assignments on each play, and not many have the patience to rewind every offensive play five times.

However, glaring errors — like Ugoh getting abused by Carolina's Julius Peppers and Richards' poor shotgun snaps — are easily observed by the casual watcher and can lead to unfair assumptions.

This analysis falls somewhere in between. A fair amount of rewinding to watch the young players yielded the following observations:

• This young group of linemen — we'll include Ugoh with the three draft picks, since he is just beginning his second year — is as a whole extremely versatile and athletic. They have the potential to add another dimension to the offense in the form of end-arounds and screen passes.

• Richard started at left guard and looked solid, both in pass protection and in the running game. As a player that was maybe a question mark to make the team at the start of training camp, he's really improved his stock in the last few weeks.

• Pollak is not only big, but he's also fast, athletic and looks pretty nasty. He stood out more in the running game than in pass protection, often completely taking his man out of the play permanently and blocked them to the ground a few times. He did get knocked on his back once while pass blocking, but it appeared that we was tripped up, rather than overpowered.

• Justice is fast off the ball and does a good job getting his block on the man across from him, then getting off and looking for more on the second level. Getting those blocks will be important for his success and the team's.

5. A punting team can't advance a muffed punt:

The difference between a fumble and a muff can be found here. This was a heads-up play by Ramon Guzman, however, who for the second week in a row was in position to grab a loose ball. A penchant for making plays like that will make it difficult for the coaches to leave him off the 53-man roster.

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